Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood and Emmi Pikler

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

What is it...who were Rudolf Steiner and Emmi Pikler and how can this combination of their approaches to Early Childhood Education and care benefit the child.

"Receive the children in reverence, educate them in love and send them forth into freedom." Rudolf Steiner

Who were Rudolf Steiner and Emmi Pikler?

Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) was an innovative academic born in Austria whose ideas founded the basis of Anthroposophy.

He applied his ideas to education as well as agriculture, medicine, architecture and social reform. His works form inspiration for the founding principles of Steiner Schools as they are today, however not all schools promote anthroposophy, or endorse every part of it.

Emmi Pikler, a Hungarian Paediatrician who worked in Budapest in the 1920s, devised an original approach to parenting. Following WW2 she worked in and developed institutional care for Babies and Toddlers. After having her own child and using the careful observations of other children in her residential nursery in Budapest which she eventually opened up her research provided the basis for developing deep co-operative, respectful relationships between very young children and their carers.

The Principles of the Steiner Early Childhood Education

Reverence - The child is a whole person and should be respected as thus, allowed to unfold at their own pace in an unhurried, peaceful and safe environment. Steiner education considers carefully the physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual needs of each individual child.

The Environment - Steiner believed a child's environment should be calming, nurturing and nourishing. Many Steiner Early Childhood settings and Kindergartens have soft pink shades on the walls some in a special paint wash called lazure. Pink pre-dominantly features in Steiner Kindergartens not as a gender related choice but rather the colours and tones that a child would have been exposed to in the mothers womb. The soft warming pinks, wooden furniture and natural silk and wool fabrics present together create a 'womb' like nurturing environment perfect for a childs play to flourish and grow.

Play - Rudolf Steiner recognised that a child's true 'work' is play. Play to a child is not a form of entertainment but their way of experiencing the world, using their imagination, testing their ideas and immersing themselves in life. Toys and materials in a Steiner Kindergarten or School are not highly detailed, research shows that toys formed like this can make a child's play repetitive. A plastic lawnmower for example only serves a purpose as a lawnmower, a less detailed wooden cart could become a lawnmower, as well as a pram, a truck, a bus. Play with simple natural materials which nurture the child's senses and stimulate creativity are always favoured in the Steiner Approach. Open ended materials and toys which come without a defined form allow a child's free play and imagination to excel as they freely move from one idea to another, materials and toys being able to be interpreted by the child as they see fit. A large shell could become a boat, or a phone, a fairy house or a cup to drink from. A simple piece of natural dyed cheesecloth could become a swaddle for a 'baby', a sheet for a bed, a cloak of a noble knight, king or queen and if big enough a tent.

Imitation - Steiner believed and we are now so very aware that young children are like sponges, absorbing everything in their environment and being deeply and profoundly affected by the actions and attitudes of those around them. Young children 'grasp' the world with their whole being, they throw themselves into learning with such enthusiasm and vigour. Young children especially in the first seven years love to imitate what they see around them, it is therefore important that their environment and especially the people in it, are worthy of this imitation. Early Childhood teachers are concious to use clear language and behaviour, modelling good social behaviour and attitudes. Cooking, baking, gardening, handwork, cleaning and caring for materials are meaningful tasks performed daily in a Steiner setting and are nourishing for the child to imitate.

Rhythm and Repetition - The first years of a childs life are full of learning, every day children grasp at the world, absorbing, testing ideas and making sense of everything around them. As children take on so much stimulus the world it can become an overwhelming place. A predictable cycle which runs daily, weekly and seasonally which is sensitive to the pace and rhythm of the childs needs ensures that they are able to feel secure and know what to expect, the calm, homely atmosphere of a Steiner setting accentuates this feeling. Many activities are repeated weekly and there is a great emphasis on Ring time and story time, building familiarity and instilling confidence and independence alongside language skills.

Stories, songs and activities like bread making and vegetable growing for example relate to the seasons and the nature table reflects the changing world outside of the indoor play space. Festivals from all cultures and beliefs mark turning points of the year. Memory is strengthened by the recurrence of daily, weekly and yearly events and an understanding of the past, present and future gradually develops.

The Principles of the Pikler Approach.

Full attention - especially when involved in caring activity times - The Pikler approach advocates that parents and Carers avoid all multi-tasking and focus completely on their baby when involved in a caring activity. Dr Pikler believed that babies see this attention as love and it brings stillness and focus to the days of a young baby which may have been overcome with production.

Slowdown - Babies thrive when in a calm, slow environment. Babies become over-stimulated and stressed when caregivers are stressed and rush about care giving routines. Pikler suggested carers aim to create an atmosphere of peace, calm and a pace respectful to the baby to ensure the baby feels respected and doesn't become upset.

Building Trust and Working on Relationships during caring activities - Taking time participating in caring activities such as nappy changes, bathing and dressing offers valuable opportunity for baby to bond with a carer and babies will often want to participate in these activities when they feel comfortable and safe. Dr Pikler observed that babies given security and freedom during caring activities will become competent and co-operative partners.

With and not To - Explaining to babies what is happening narrating and describing during caregiving routines and allowing them the opportunity to be involved allows carers to care with the child. Patience is an important part of this process allowing babies the time to respond.

Babies should not be put in a position they cannot get themselves into - Dr Pikler believed in not propping babies up and allowing them freedom of movement and the opportunity to experiment and overcome challenges, which derive a natural sense of satisfaction and achievement. Dr Pikler was opposed to baby 'equipment' such as swings prams and walkers claiming they were more for the convenience of the caregiver than the baby.

Babies need uninterrupted playtime - allowing a nurturing environment, space and time for babies to fully explore and entertain themselves. Allowing babies the opportunity to do this allows them to develop confidence and self esteem.

Respectful Carers and Educators - respecting and responding to a childs physical and verbal cues to ensure a culture of development and mutual respect.

Familiar parts of the day in a Steiner Setting and how your child may experience Steiner Education and the Principles of Emmi Pikler in my home based setting.

The Respectful, Responsive Carer - Care routines and every child's natural rhythm are respected and responded to in a warm, respectful and nurturing environment. Plenty of time is allowed for children's free play and the freedom of movement for the very young, children are not rushed and their own personalities and needs are respected.

The Morning Walk and Outdoor Play - Every day we venture outside for a morning walk and free-play. Each day follows its own Rhythm. For example Mondays might be nature walk Mondays in a local woodland, Tuesdays may be the local community and park day, Wednesdays may be Garden days, Thursdays may be Forest School Day where we spend the majority of the day outdoors and eat outdoors and Fridays may be to a cultural place of interest such as an art galley or sculpture park. These unhurried mornings allow children to soak up the sights and sounds of the great outdoors and allow them to immerse themselves in play whilst getting the benefit of fresh air and exercise. As the saying goes there is no such thing as inappropriate weather only inappropriate clothing, so unless the weather is extreme and I risk assess it to be a danger to the children in my care we will be out, clothed appropriately and having fun. The great advantage to morning walks and outdoor play is it provides a solid foundation for the days conversations and really enables children to build social and language skills. The back garden of my setting has a mud kitchen and plenty of space to be stocked with resources to allow immersive play. The front garden is to be renovated in the spring of 2020 to provide further space for play.

Creative play and activity - As each day has its own identity for outdoors so it does for creative activity such as painting, baking etc. Children may play freely when indoors from the wonderful array of open ended resources in the warm inviting playroom, they may join in with the mornings activity or help prepare snack. In my setting I always strive to provide A mood of calm, relaxed work and creative play where the initiative comes from the child, with gentle encouragement and guidance where necessary. Children have plenty of time to immerse themselves in play and activities and are not rushed.

Tidy Away - Returning toys to their proper place with gentle song, encourages teamwork and care respect for the things children and adults use.

Ring-Time - Songs, poems, finger games, movement and story all reflecting the seasons make up daily ring time. Children become familiar with the repetitive songs and finger plays allowing them to develop a wince range of skills essential for future learning and development.

Snack and mealtimes - Sitting together by candlelight with proper cutlery and plates, proper glasses and a trusting guiding adult. Wholesome food which children may have helped prepare is set out on the table. Fruit Salads, whole meal bread, vegetable soup or oatcakes and honey are an example of some wholesome snacks which may be served for example.

Story time- At story time, candles may be lit, curtains drawn and a story is told from memory. It may be a fairytale, nature story or folk tale, the story is repeated so children become familiar and sometimes puppets may be used or children may want to get involved in acting in the story.

How does being a Steiner style early childhood setting benefit the child?

In a Steiner setting the child and their right to childhood, their right to find wonder in the world, to imagine and bring forth all they desire to fruition, whilst being deeply respected as an individual is rooted in practice.

Children enjoy an unhurried childhood, children are free to live in the moment, explore nature everyday and go wherever their imagination wants to take them, all whilst feeling safe and cared for. In a modern world where is seems more and more common to push children to "hurry up" and "achieve" before they "fall behind" the Steiner Approach takes the viewpoint that childhood should be savoured and children should be free to develop according to their own natural rhythms, enjoying a full and rich childhood, gaining vital experiences they need to become healthy, self actualised individuals.

Traditionally in Steiner settings children do not learn formal academics until around age seven. Steiner believed, and there is mounting research and evidence that it was most beneficial to the child to allow learning through play, and that only until children had worked on their formative development - were physically accomplished, had rich oral language skills and great social skills, were they fully then free to learn more formal aspects such as reading and writing. Research shows that this approach to formal academics, popular across much of Europe not only shows no difference in academic achievement with peers who started earlier reading by age 11, but the mental wellbeing of children who delay academics and their natural drive to read as they get older is better.

This does not mean children are not prepared for these academics. Reading is prepared for with a rich Oral tradition in Steiner settings, plenty of social time, rhyme, storytelling, puppet shows and song. Books with rich illustrations free of words allow children to experiment with language and storytelling free of another's narrative and ideas, this allows for creative thinking and imagination to thrive. Writing and mathematics is prepared for through practical applications, handwork such as craft, sewing, knitting, preparing snacks, bread making, painting, allow for development of fine motor skills, shape recognition, counting, measurement, quantity, weight etc. All of these things are integrated into play and children EXPERIENCE them.

Of course if a child is showing an interest and ability to read and write it will be encouraged wholeheartedly. The focus in any Steiner setting is respect and reverence for the child and responding to them, their needs and wishes sensitivity and with care.

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